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Archbishop George H. Niederauer dead at 80

web_Niederauer_obitRetired San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer, who died May 2, is shown at the West Coast Walk for Life. He regularly attended the San Francisco pro-life event during his tenure as archbishop. (Catholic San Francisco)

May 2, 2017

Retired San Francisco Archbishop George Hugh Niederauer, a longtime English professor and 11-year bishop of Salt Lake City, died today at 80.

He had been living at Nazareth House in San Rafael for several months following a diagnosis of interstitial lung disease.

“Archbishop Niederauer was known for his spiritual leadership, intelligence and wisdom, compassion and humor, and was always focused on his responsibility to live and teach the faith,” said San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone in an announcement to the priests of the archdiocese.

“When he was named archbishop, he was asked what he would want the people of the Archdiocese of San Francisco to know about him,” Archbishop Cordileone said. “He answered, ‘I’ve chosen the motto for my coat of arms, ‘to serve and to give’, because I am convinced servant leadership in the church defines the role of the bishop. This is the message of the Gospel, as in the reading from Mark, Chapter 10, which was included in my installation Mass. There we hear James and John asking for special places next to Jesus. He says to all his apostles that the one who would ‘be first among you must be the servant of the rest because the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many.’ Leading by serving: it’s easily misunderstood, but it seems central to me.”

Former Los Angeles archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony said, “It was with deep sadness that I learned of the death of a longtime friend and ordination classmate, Archbishop George H. Niederauer. May God’s warm embrace encircle him unto eternal life.”

“His engaging wit and humor became hallmarks of his open and loving personality, and he always had just the right words and the turn of a phrase to help defuse tensions and to uplift people – no matter what cloud was overhead,” Cardinal Mahony said.

The eighth archbishop of San Francisco, Archbishop Niederauer succeeded seminary classmate and boyhood friend Cardinal William J. Levada who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2005. Archbishop Niederauer served as ordinary of San Francisco from 2006 to 2012, and was succeeded by Archbishop Cordileone.

Born June 14, 1936, in Los Angeles, the only son of a banker-turned homebuilder and a homemaker, Archbishop Niederauer attended St. Anthony High School in Long Beach, and then one year at Stanford University before he entered the seminary. He was ordained to the priesthood April 30, 1962, for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

He earned a doctorate in English from the University of Southern California in 1966, and spent 27 years as English professor, spiritual director, theology teacher and rector at the seminary and at Mount Saint Mary’s College in Los Angeles before his 1994 appointment by Pope John Paul II as ordinary of Salt Lake City, a sparsely populated diocese that encompasses the entire state of Utah. He also served as associate pastor 1962-63 in the Los Angeles area.

As archbishop of San Francisco, Archbishop Niederauer left behind a Utah diocese in an area heavily influenced by the traditional values of the Church of the Latter-day Saints to grapple with a number of controversial issues. In 2008, he supported California Prop. 8 declaring marriage is between one man and one woman, which passed although it was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The San Francisco Chronicle interviewed the policy director for the Mormons who credited Archbishop Niederauer’s outreach to the Church of Latter-day Saints with its decision to commit grass roots door to door campaigning and $20 million to the battle.

In 2006, Archbishop Niederauer shut down the archdiocese’s 99-year Catholic Charities adoption agency, and in 2008 severed ties with a contracted adoption agency, after Vatican doctrinal agency head and his predecessor in San Francisco Cardinal Levada directed an end to all gay adoptions. During that period, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution urging him to “defy” the Vatican and accused the Vatican of being a “meddling … foreign country.”

In 2009, House Speaker and San Francisco Representative Nancy Pelosi contended in a Newsweek interview that freedom of conscience meant her advocacy for abortion rights was compatible with her Catholic faith. “While we deeply respect the freedom of our fellow citizens," Archbishop Niederauer wrote in answer in a January 2010 column in Catholic San Francisco, "we nevertheless are profoundly convinced that free will cannot be cited as justification for society to allow moral choices that strike at the most fundamental rights of others. Such a choice is abortion, which constitutes the taking of innocent human life, and cannot be justified by any Catholic notion of freedom."

Archbishop Niederauer also defended religious freedom, opposing a proposed ban on circumcision by the Board of Supervisors, and actively supported immigrant rights.

His episcopal motto was “To serve and to give,” and on the celebration of his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, his successor in Salt Lake City, now- Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester told the Utah diocesan newspaper, the Intermountain Catholic that the motto "is perfect because that’s what he does. He’s a real pastor and I admire him greatly. He’s a real servant of Christ. He’s been an inspiration to me in my own ministry.”

Archbishop Niederauer regularly attended the Walk for Life West Coast after he became archbishop in 2006.

“His Excellency’s faithfulness and kindness (and humor!) were open to all who met him,” said Eva Muntean, co-chair of the Walk for Life West Coast. “Throughout his episcopate he joined us at the Walk for Life West Coast in promoting the culture of life and defending the littlest among us, and we will never forget it. Our good shepherd has gone home to the Lord.”

On his 50th ordination anniversary, Archbishop Niederauer told Catholic San Francisco reporter George Raine, “I am grateful to God for calling me to spend my life meeting and serving Jesus Christ in my sisters and brothers in the church. The church is truly my family in faith.”

Msgr. J. Terrence Fitzgerald, the retired vicar general at the Diocese of Salt Lake City and a friend of the archbishop for 25 years, said of him at that time, “He is one of the most authentic human people that I have known. St. Thomas Aquinas said grace builds on nature. And I think that is really true in the archbishop’s case because he is such a good, warm, personable individual. His presence reflects a certain grace of the church’s presence.”

Archbishop Niederauer earned a Bachelor of Philosophy degree at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, a Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Loyola University, Los Angeles, in 1962. He also earned a Ph.D. in English Literature at University of Southern California in 1966.

In retirement, Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Niederauer shared a home on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park where Archbishop Niederauer frequently ate in the dining room with the seminarians, joshing and chatting. During his nearly five years of retirement, he generously responded to frequent requests to give retreats – to bishops, priests, deacons, men and women religious, and to seminarians. In January this year, he moved to Nazareth House for care during his final illness.

During his active ministry, Archbishop Niederauer served as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Communication, and as a member of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Archbishop Niederauer wrote “Precious as Silver: Imagining Your Life with God” (Ave Maria Press, 2003), which explores biblical images of Christian life and reflects on spirituality centered on Jesus.

A viewing will be held at Thursday, May 11, at 4 p.m. at Mission Dolores Basilica, 3321 16th St., San Francisco, followed by a vigil at 7. A funeral Mass is scheduled at 11 a.m. Friday, May 12, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 1111 Gough St., San Francisco.

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